The Water Problem is the Backbone of Stability in Central Asia

Central Asia became of the most water-challenged places on the planet. The Soviet Union’s attempts to develop the deserts and steppes dried up the Aral Sea. Given that agriculture still remains one of the leading sectors in the regional economy, it stands to reason that Aral, once the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world, may never recover.

The issue of water crisis in Central Asia is emerging as most serious problem that can cause the worst political, economic and humanitarian losses in the next five to ten years. It is noteworthy that the five countries living in the region are not the parties that play an important role in these water resources issue. In this regard, the countries with high water resources such as Afghanistan and China and countries with low water resources such as Iran or other countries with economic and political goals in CA such as Russia, the United States and the European Union are among the countries that directly affect the process of water changes in the region. From this point of view, it is necessary to study this problem from the wider perspective.

The New Water Challenges: Deepening the Regional and International Approaches

For the past 5-6 years Tashkent began to actively work with neighboring countries in bilateral and multilateral formats to solve water problems. Uzbekistan’s first careful and then clear statements allowed it to take a firmer position in the subsequent processes and make the necessary political maneuvers. To date, issues of water cooperation are considered not only from the СA perspective, but also from the perspective of international cooperation. The water sharing issues are given priority in foreign ministerial meetings involving all countries of the region and, and in a broader sense, Russia and China.

Meanwhile, in recent decades, Central Asia has become a food source for neighboring China and Russia, which has exacerbated the region’s water crisis. More than 54 billion cubic meters of water is used in Kazakhstan’s agriculture in one year. And more and more wheat grown in the country is sold to China.

Further complicating this problem is the fact that the Taliban government recently has begun construction of the large Koshtepa canal in the north of the country. If this canal is completed, one third of Amudarya water will flow into the interior of Afghanistan. This can create serious consequences for many regions of Uzbekistan, as well as for Turkmenistan.

Unfortunately the water volume of Amudarya and Syrdarya, the two important blood vessels of Central Asia, is decreasing

On April 1 the President of Uzbekistan Sh.Mirziyoyev signed the Decree “On Urgent Measures to Improve the Efficiency of Water Resources Use”. According to the forecast in 2023, the volume of water resources in the Syrdarya river basin is expected to decrease by 10-15% and in the Amudarya river basin – by 15-20% of the long-term norm.

Speaking at the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly, the Uzbek President emphasized that “Speaking of the problems of ensuring security and stability in Central Asia, one cannot ignore such an important issue as the joint use of the common water resources of the region”.

Uzbekistan is building relations on water management issues with the neighboring countries both at the multilateral level – within the framework of IFAS, the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea and ICWC, the Interstate Coordination Water Commission, and at the bilateral level – within the framework of bilateral working commissions / groups on water use issues.

In particular, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan jointly determine the operating mode of the Bahri-Tojik reservoir in the summer on mutually beneficial terms.

In addition, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan jointly resolve the issue of additional discharge of water from the Toktogul reservoir in the summer, carrying out electricity flows for this purpose. At the same time, the interests of all parties are taken into account, due to which the rational and efficient use of the region’s water and energy resources is achieved.

Dear ladies and gentlemen, now I would like to give brief information about relations between Uzbekistan and Central Asian countries on the water issue.

With Kazakhstan:

A joint Working Group has been established to develop proposals for deepening cooperation in all areas of water relations between the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Republic of Kazakhstan. To date, 8 meetings of the Working Group have been held.

Two “Road maps” were signed on cooperation in the field of water relations between the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Republic of Kazakhstan. Currently, the implementation of the activities of the “Road Map”, signed on July 2, 2020, is being completed.

At present, the issue of signing the new Agreement between the Governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on the joint management and use of transboundary waters is also being worked out.

With the Kyrgyz Republic:

An Agreement was signed between the Governments of Uzbekistan and the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic on the interstate use of the Orto-Tokoi (Kasansay) reservoir in the Ala-Buka district of the Jalal-Abad region of the Kyrgyz Republic and an appropriate bilateral commission was established for the joint use of this reservoir.

In order to provide water to irrigated lands of Uzbekistan during the growing season, agreements were reached and relevant documents were signed between the leadership of the water management and energy departments of two countries.

On January 6, 2023, the Ministers of Energy of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in Bishkek signed a roadmap for the implementation of the construction project on the Naryn River in Kyrgyzstan of the Kambarata HPP-1.

With Tajikistan:

A joint Working Group on the integrated use of water resources of the transboundary rivers has been established.

On March 9, 2018, an Agreement was signed in Dushanbe between the Governments Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on cooperation to ensure the functioning of the Farhad Dam.

In order to successfully conduct the growing season, starting from 2020, the protocol of the Workshop of the Kazakh, Tajik and Uzbek sides is signed annually to agree on the operating mode of the Bahri Tojik reservoir for the growing season of the current year.

With Turkmenistan:

In accordance with the Agreement signed on May 26, 2021 in Ashgabat between the Governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on the Joint Uzbek-Turkmen Intergovernmental Commission on Water Management Issues, the Joint Intergovernmental Commission on Water Management Issues was established.

On May 26, 2021, an Additional Agreement to the Agreement between the two countries on paid land use was signed in Ashgabat, which made it possible to begin work on the reconstruction of the Sultansanjar dam of the Tuyamuyun hydroelectric complex.

On July 14, 2022, an intergovernmental Agreement on the management, protection and rational use of the water resources of the Amudarya River was signed.

 With Afghanistan:

There are no new transboundary water sharing agreements with the current Afghan government. Relations in this direction have not been reshaped after the official relations of the Soviet era, and the relevant documents are already outdated.

Of course, water is a gift given by mother nature to everyone and everyone has the right to use it freely. For this reason, it is impossible to demand the Taliban government not to build the Koshtepa canal or to stop it.

However, since the canal is not yet fully constructed, water is already flowing in it. Its bottom is not reinforced with concrete. This leads to excessive wastage of water.

Based on the current situation, the Uzbek side expresses its readiness to cooperate in the process of quality construction of this channel.

Dear participants of the seminar!

Conclusions. The work done to strengthen bilateral cooperation with the countries of Central Asia in the water management sector has made it possible to solve many problematic issues that have come to a standstill in the last decade. Almost all disputable issues on water management facilities in the border areas and their operation have been settled, the regimes and volumes of water withdrawals from the main transboundary rivers are being promptly coordinated, and joint efforts are being made to mitigate the impact of low water. Bilateral treaties and agreements in the field of water use have been updated with almost all of our neighbors.

Thus, the efforts made in recent years by Uzbekistan contribute to a significant “defeat” of regional tension around the use of water resources of the transboundary rivers – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, as well as in resolving the Aral Sea crisis. These circumstances are welcomed and perceived by the international community as a very positive trend, which has already become a driving force for effective regional cooperation and integration.

In the words of Water and agriculture officials, “now we are sharing water like close brothers.” However, there is a high probability that the situation will become more complicated in the next 5-6 years.

Thank you for your attention!

My speech at the International Seminar on “Understanding Central Asian Perspectives on Eurasia” hosted by the India Central Asia Foundation ” on 11-13 April.

New Delhi, India